Skip to content

Newsletter 7th December 2007

- The $100 laptop: is it appropriate? - LEDs: the future of lighting? - The dangers of coal

The $100 laptop: is it appropriate?

The charity One Laptop Per Child, which first mooted the idea of a robust, affordable laptop for developing countries five years ago, is now in a position to supply them. Production has started in China, and the first order has been placed, by the government of Uruguay. Officially called the XO, it can no longer in truth be described as the "$100 laptop" since raw material costs have now driven the selling price to $188. Nevertheless, economies of scale will doubtless drive manufacturing costs down and this is still an amazingly low price for a fully functional computer.

The XO looks well designed. It has a slow (by modern standards) but energy efficient processor, and no need for a cooking fan. The screen is small, but has both colour and monochrome modes; in black and white it is bright enough to be used in direct sunlight. Wireless connectivity is built-in, with each laptop able to act as a router for others. The keyboard is sealed, and the computer is designed to be dust- and water-proof.

There is no hard disk, but a 1GB solid state memory, expandable with memory cards. The operating system is a pared-down version of Linux with low memory requirements, and word processing and spreadsheet applications can run alongside a Firefox-based browser. The lack of moving parts makes it shock resistant and long-life batteries and energy saving features make for long usage times between charges. Charging can be done from the mains or micro-generators, or via a manual "yo-yo" generator (akin to a wind-up radio).

But however good the technology may look, is this appropriate for developing countries, or would limited funds be better spent on conventional classrooms? This question can best be answered via another question: what does the XO enable children to do that can't be done better and more cheaply in another way?

Obviously, a laptop is no substitute for effective teaching of literacy and numeracy but, with these basics in place, a whole new world is opened up. Schools with no books can access the vast resources on the internet for free. Reading books on a computer screen may not be ideal, but it is priceless where there are no libraries. Children can communicate via email not just with their immediate friends but across the country and internationally. Perhaps most importantly, they can learn about the outside world and expand their aspirations and ambitions.

The analogy is with mobile phones. At first, these may seem irrelevant to the needs of rural Africans (for example). However, in countries with no fixed line infrastructure outside the cities, mobile phones are the perfect way to provide communications at relatively low cost. Phones may be shared, making access to them affordable, and they are a perfect way to spread news and information. An often-quoted example is that of small-scale farmers who are able to find the best market price for their produce.

"Appropriate" technology is often interpreted to mean simple or basic, but in the case of mobile phones and the XO laptop it means sophisticated electronics in a robust and useful format. It is not for us to judge what developing countries may or may not find useful. They must make their own decisions.

LEDs: the future of lighting?

Plans are afoot to replace the familiar incandescent light bulbs by low-energy compact fluorescent bulbs. These are approximately five times more efficient and, although there are still arguments about their overall contribution to energy saving and costs of safe disposal, it is undoubtedly true that their widespread use would reduce energy consumption in the home. However, they themselves may also be under threat from LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes).

LEDs have been available in specialised products for some time: early digital watches and calculators in the 1970s, for example. More recently, they have become familiar in a range of lighting applications such as torches, and bike and car lights. Users will know that batteries last many times longer because of the low energy consumption characteristics (typically, around 40% efficient compared to the 5% of tungsten bulbs) and that they have very long lives (it is very not likely that LED brake lights will need replacing in a car's lifetime for example).

Two other advantages are their small size, making them suitable for a wide range of applications and their very rapid on/off characteristics. For car brake lights, this can reduce the number or accidents, for householders, it means that the warm-up time associated with low-energy bulbs would be a thing of the past. However, although they are available in a range of colours, white versions give a very cold light which is unlikely to be appropriate for domestic lighting. This is unlikely to be an insurmountable problem, though; blue LEDs have only recently been developed, and now seem to be everywhere.

When LEDs suitable for home use are developed, we can look forward to changing bulbs being a very infrequent event, and electricity consumption being further reduced. Designers will no doubt explore the potential of such a compact type of bulb as well. In the meantime, researchers will be developing even better or cheaper light sources. We simply can't project what technologies we will be using by mid-century.

The dangers of coal

In case anyone needed reminding, the fact that coal mining is a dangerous business was tragically reinforced today by the death of 105 miners in an explosion in China. China has a very poor safety record, with on average 13 miners dying every day, but loss of life is not uncommon in other mining countries either. Even if safety is improved, coal is likely to be mined at an accelerating rate and for a long time to come: it is the cheapest fuel available and reserves are much greater than for oil.

This puts in perspective society's disquiet about nuclear power. High levels of radiation can, of course, be dangerous, but the risks are minuscule compared to the dangers of extracting coal. Chernobyl is by far the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and yet the dire health consequences predicted have not come to pass.

This is not an argument in favour of nuclear per se. Nevertheless, we should not rush to judgement on any particular power generation technology. All have their pros and cons and their dangers, and decisions on which to use where should be taken in the full knowledge of this.